The OF Blog: Amusing fandom differences

Monday, May 12, 2008

Amusing fandom differences

I visit a wide variety of blogs and forums on the average day. For the forums, I tend to use 7-8 year-old SNs back from a time when using real first/last names was odd, while for the blogs I use my given name and now for the paid reviews for e-zines my surname as well. It is an interesting mix of protocols and reader backgrounds at each of these three types of online stops.

One thing that I've noticed that stands out are reader reactions to books and authors. Those who visit my blog due to links from other blogs, based on the conversations that I've had in Comments section here, seem to prefer standalone, smaller volumes for their books. Many of the books that I've investigated as a result seem to bear this out. But on the forums, in particular Westeros, wotmania, SFF World, and to a lesser degree Fantasy Bookspot, the "average reader" seems to be wanting more and more multi-volume epic fantasy doorstoppers.

For example, in this thread over at Westeros, a reader says this in regards to Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series:

Even the editing is subjective and a matter of taste. I can't comment as I just read Erikson's first and part of the second, but the biggest flaw of the first book is that it is too short.
Interesting, since I'm of the opinion that such books, interesting as they are in pieces, tend to be too long, without a tightly-written narrative. Too much exposition, although short epics tend to be viewed as an oxymoron, I know.

Related to this are the various "recommendation" threads that you'll see at these places. Almost without exception, this are "more of the same" recommendations and not recommendations for people to shift gears and to try something completely different. There is almost a meme-like quality to requests for new books now. For example, someone says, "Well, I've finished Martin's last book, what are other books that I ought to try?" Almost invariably, you'll see these names mentioned: R. Scott Bakker (and as much as Scott and I are good friends, this isn't about the personal merits of any of these books here), Steven Erikson, and more recently Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, and sometimes Patrick Rothfuss or Brian Ruckley.

Is there much in the way of differences between them? To some degree, yes, but ultimately each is a multi-volume effort, spanning 3 to 10 volumes (planned) in length, each set in a cod-medieval setting. I like epic fantasies on occasion and I do agree that most of these authors have their merits (despite whatever mischief I might start up with Abercrombie on occasion), but if (wo)man shall not live by bread alone, neither should the reader live by just one style alone. Brain rot and all that nasty gunkiness, you know.

Seriously though, there is a sense of insularity that takes place on a great many of these forums. "Literary" or "Mainstream" fiction generally is either verboten or is looked at strangely; it is a weird beast to them. A couple of days ago, one of the moderators at Westeros compiled the results of a month-long reader "poll" as to which were the readers' five favorite SF/F writers. The results are hardly surprising for the first 10-15. It is around #15 that one begins to see which forum regulars read outside just one particular genre box (and yes, I was quite pleased to see that Jorge Luis Borges received a single vote more than Robert Jordan. I am that petty). But on the whole, the vast majority of books mentioned were for multi-volume secondary-world/epic fantasies.

The inverse seems to be true for blogs that are not strictly tied to the blogger's interactions with a particular set of forums. If I go read the comments on say Fantasy Magazine, the concerns, discussions, and whatnot often differ substantially from what transpires on a forum. I'm more likely to see a post on I Distrust Female Authors on a forum than I am to see a discussion of gender roles/expectations in a reflective, considered fashion. Blogs are different beasts from forums and since by their very nature are person-centric rather than community-centric, there tends to be a greater sense of variety. But yet it is interesting how few blogs I visit where one is likely to say, "Ya know, Steve Erickson and Steven Erikson both have their strong suits and I'd highly recommend both for the reader to consider." More often or not, LJs, blogs not kept by forum regulars, and author blogs tend to remain outside the Pale as far as forum regulars are and for the most part, the inverse applies as well.

I have no axes to grind here; if anything, I mostly understand that people have different tastes and they gravitate towards those tastes. I just cannot help but to wonder if in a hypothetical conversation between a die-hard epic fantasy-loving forum regular and a "literary fantasy"-preferring blogger there might be "translation" difficulties. If I struggle at times to explain why I believe epic fantasy characterization can be improved and strengthened by streamlining over increased exposition, perhaps it might stand that it's a more general difference in world-views on such matters.

But what do I know? Both Erickson and Erikson in my opinion deserve some consideration, but who reading this has ever read anything by either/both of them? Or for that matter, who wants to consider/debate Jennifer Stevenson's alteration of Arthur C. Clarke's maxim: "Any magic with sufficient internal consistency is indistinguishable from technology." I read that one today and she hit something that I've been wondering about all along when it comes to plot/setting - why explain every damn thing to the most minute of details?

Just something else for my achy self to consider as I get ready for bed in a few minutes.

16 comments:

Jonathan M said...

So what you're saying is that many fantasy fans are conservative, closed-minded and tribal?

who'd a thunk it? :-)

Jen said...

This post needs a long response with intelligent remarks... which I don't have. Just a couple of bullet points:
* I'm usually open to suggestion, but I will still prefer, for example, an urban fantasy to a cyberpunk novel (because I've read both and I know which way my tastes go)
* I've discovered at least one awesome author through 'if you like X you'll like Y' recommendations
* ...but I find it very weird when someone asks for something like 'medieval fantasy with a male lead and at least 3 volumes' (there was someone over on FBS asking a question like this). I think that's narrowing it down too much.

A headache is trying to grab me, so I'd better head off to work before it gets worse. Take care of your lovely illness :D

Elena said...

Thought you sounded right up my sometimes pretentious and usually over-literary alley from the things you said about Abercrombie, despite my rating on your review over there. :)

I don't get on many different forums or blogs, so I have no frame of reference on your read of the two styles of internet community. Mostly I found your discussion to expose an interesting dichotomy between two styles of fantasy, single-volume and multi-volume. I place a high value on such things as good writing, consistent storylines/characterization, consistent world-building...but I tend to hate worlds that over-explain the system. It (1) tends to sound a bit hokey when you step back into reality and actually THINK about it, and (2) takes away the literary magic of being able to imagine what you want or project what you want onto the system. I would love to see more fantasy written in the style of Dune as far as exposition goes, with a lot clearly in the world and a lot of hints but not a lot of explicit delineation.

That being said, I also fit into the category of reader who prefers stand-alone novels. Not least of which because I hate getting home from a bookstore only to realize it's volume 3 in a series and not clearly marked that way...or getting to the end of the book and discovering it's volume 1 and the story isn't nearly over yet. But also because so very, very many of the epic series that start out strongly start sliding down after the first few books. I think trilogy is about as long as anything should ever be, and sometimes that feels too long for a story. However, I've seen discussions among writers and agents that this multi-volume approach is something publishing companies push for, because most people who start will read to the end, and a series with 3, 6, 10 books will get a lot more name recognition for people new to the author than a single volume will. I don't know how true that really is, but it made sense to me. And it made me sad, if quality is suffering by expanding books that should be one volume into several, just for the sake of sales numbers. Perhaps the long story style appeals to a larger segment of the fantasy community than people like me comprise, however, making it quite the legitimate strategy for pleasing readers and not just for making an extra buck. Again, I have no frame of reference.

I think, if you don't mind a books to movies comparison, that people who write single-volume works and move on tend to approach books the way Kubrick approached movies. He put everything he wanted and needed to tell the story in the first one, and even if it was long it was all so good nobody minded. And then he started on something new. I would weep with joy if that became the pervading style of fantasy. Until then, I guess the best I can hope for is that people who plan X books from the start don't get talked, either by their publisher or the wild-eyed madman side of their muse, into making it X + 1. Then X + 2. Seems the writers who stick to their plan wind up with a better series than the ones who expand once it gets started.

Anyway. Thanks for something to think about all day at work. :)

Liviu said...

Regarding the 2 Ericsons, I love the US one and own all his books, though read only some yet, and I do not care that much for the Canadian one - but world building in fantasy is not my cup of tea and I loved it when MJH pointed out the intrinsic shallowness of the concept anyway.

I post only on sffworld and I do not shy about posting about Pavic, CR Zafon and others in the fantasy forum, or about Crumey in the sf one since this is how I discover new interesting writers for me, by looking at the recommnendation of others. I know what's published in sf and at least in epic or weird fantasy - since I do not read paranormal one - there are enough sites with updates, and Locus is comprehensive, but I have no idea which authors outside the strict genre but with interesting fiction for me would appeal, so I am always happy to discover new ones.

From this blog the main one was Pavic, whom I checked once years ago, but was not in the mood for the Khazars book, but I am absolutely loving the Tarot novel - done, the Second Body - more than half, I'm currently at it, and the crossword and the 2-sided one - got both and they are next. I would love to get the Unique one, but for now it's a bit too expensive since as far as I could find it's available only from Serbia...

While I like GRRM's ASOIAF, I do not lose any sleep about when the next installment is published, and there are quite a few other books I would love to get an arc if the price on Ebay would be reasonable, so I do not find myself comfortable in a forum dedicated to an author, however broad the discussion may be. I saw this reaction on sffworld, when a poster I have respect for, started almost attacking people for dismissing GRRM's other work - since I read Sandkings in the 80's, I always thought of GRRM as an author to watch, but none of his books before ASOIAF interested me in any way. When Game of Thrones appeared in the 90's, it seemed interesting and I bought it - I still have that first edition hc...

Regarding magic and technology - usually magic requires the right bloodline, the right race if you want, and second it is usually retail, not mass market so to speak. A factory of magically produced levitation chairs :) Hmm, have you seen that in fantasy? Seen it in D. Weber Hell series, but that is sf, though even there the bloodline comment is valid. But at least the people with magical power are gainfully employed in factories and such, rather than doing mischief in the back rooms or on thrones....

SQT said...

Posts like this are why I love your blog Larry.

First, I have to say, I don't put that much thought into what I read and like. It just sort of is what it is. I have found that my blog seems to go in it's own direction these days. I get so much chic-lit in the mail it isn't even funny. But the blog audience seems to be drawn that way, so off I go.

I also have to admit that I like series fiction. I like revisiting characters though I am loath to commit to a series that has 10 books. 3 or 4 is usually my limit.

But is this a conscious thing on my part? Most of the time no. I just kind of wander where I feel like wandering and hope I land on something I like.

I am the original light weight.

Larry said...

Jonathan,

Many, yes, same with a great many other groups whose idea of banding together is being ultra-exclusive towards others. But to be fair, there are quite a few fantasy fans of various stripes (mine being of the cross-genre/surrealist/magic realist bent) who are quite open-minded about other forms of literature.

Jen,

I know the feeling. Although I have to admit when I see such posts as what you mention last, I am tempted to respond with, "Oh? You want same crap, different name? Gotcha."

I did go to work today, coughing spells and all. Nice to be babied, though by half the staff as a result, though ;)

Elena,

Yeah, Joe and I banter quite a bit, but in all seriousness I wished I would have liked that book better on a re-read (which I do with all of my paid reviews) than what I did. I think he's just upset that I never got around to writing that elegiac poem in terza rima that I contemplated doing. Rhyming words for "Glokta" are just so hard to find!

But as for what you said about single-volume as opposed to multi-volume, I agree totally. I review multi-volume works on occasion, but most of my "pleasure reading" is of single-volume books under 400 pages long.

Liviu,

It's a two-way street here, since you did get me to check out Crumey and while I haven't yet returned to it (will by the weekend, I hope), there was enough in the first 50 pages of Music, in a Foreign Language to make me want to read more.

As for what you say at the end, I just received my copy of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Steampunk anthology and I think some of what you're describing there can be found in these stories. 200 pages in and loving it so far, because it reminds me of certain stories I read when I was growing up, but with twists to them.

SQT,

Thanks for the compliment :D To be honest, I'm glad that not everyone is like me (sometimes, I wonder if I have some sort of illness when it comes to thinking so much on things), as it does take many different (and successful) types to make the entire world go round. You're enjoying what you're doing, I'm enjoying what I'm doing and in pushing to see what can be accomplished. All is well, no?

Mark C Newton said...

A fascinating post.

I think it's worth remembering, for peace of mind, that online forums are inhabited, generally, by like-minded folk. It's the nature of the beast. You like a particular fantasy book, hang around in a forum because you have plenty of free time to comment in them, you're going to rub shoulders with people of pretty similar tastes. If you think what's being said on them is rubbish, you're not likely to stick around and change their views. So it's just a hang-out for a thin sample of tastes.

One of the things I'm always shocked about is how wider the genre is than the online presence suggests. The online community, although wonderful, is such a small percentage of the actual book-buying audience, who might have much more broader tastes.

Larry said...

Marc,

I agree, which is why I'm bemused when some make universal claims about what the "average" reader enjoys. I'm still discovering so many more "flavors" of writing/storytelling that I know it'll take more than a single lifetime to experience them all, which is perhaps part of the reason behind me writing this. I guess I'd like to discover forums devoted to other types of writing and perhaps get involved in those, if I can manage to have the time.

Jen said...

Haha, well, yes, I admit sometimes that's my first reaction too, but I notice I'm becoming bitchier lately and I'm trying to fight it.

The tolerant approach: that guy/girl has just started reading this genre and liked a certain type of book. S/he wants to read more of the same, but then will get bored and try something else. If someone asks for a similar book to X it doesn't mean they will *always* read similar books.

Personally, I'm afraid to ask for "books like...", because they usually are nothing like the elements I liked in a certain book. One happy exception was Charles de Lint, who got recommended a lot on a Robert Holdstock discussion list and, even though he has a different style, his books have the same dreamy quality.

One series I have not yet tried is Charles Stross' Merchant Princes, which is supposed to be similar to Zelazny's Amber (i.e. probably my favorite series ever). What if it's completely different and I hate it?
(however, I'd read one novella by Stross and it was very cool, so I'm getting my hopes up.)

Hope you're feeling better :)

Larry said...

I'm much the same way in that I usually avoid giving the "bitchy" answer whenever possible, but sometimes, I give in, I'll admit.

For those that do ask, I do usually supply a few suitable examples in response to those If you like X threads, but then I often will follow that with some that are quite different, just in case...

I haven't read that particular Stross series, but his SF stories leave me feeling cold, unfortunately.

As for feeling better, I woke up at 3 AM (but then again, I crashed at 7 PM), so maybe I'll feel a slight bit better today.

Balerion said...

Surely there are afficandos of memetic literature who consider genre literature verboten, or at best a weird creature when it comes up in discussions of their particular literary areas of interest?

It's the exact same thing.

Novel reading is inherently a conservative act, some might argue, and gathering together to discuss novels is inherently a tribal activity. It really shouldn't be surprising that readers gathered together in a group will tend to focus discussions on the particular common grounds they have -- so multi-volume epics on a board dedicated to a popular multi-volume epic fantasy author, hard SF on a forum dedicated to a hard SF writer, and so on.

Larry said...

Yes, there are those that would, but perhaps their organizational models differ some, as perhaps the online forum model might not be as suitable for their goals in discussing literary works?

The rest I agree with, of course, but sometimes in writing out thoughts, opinions, etc., insights can occur or others can comment and even more can be learned. So while none of this is surprising, it's still something worth considering once in a while, no? :D

Liviu said...

Regarding series - they are not uncommon in literature - think Dumas, Galsworthy, even Balzac who had many novels with related characters...

I think it all depends on the structure of the market at the given time.

Dostoevsky got paid by chapter and had gambling debts, so he had to do excellent beginning chapters to hook the readers/editors, prolong the story as much as he could to get paid better, and do excellent endings to get the new contract. So the structure of his novels - huge, brilliant openings and endings and so-so - for him - middle

Successful series outsell standalones in sff today, and as long as this will hold this is what we will get. When ss outsold novels, that's what we got - think before the 60's when sff novels were rare as opposed to massive amounts of ss. When standalones sold well - 60-70's - that is what we got...

My main interest in forums and blogs is to get ideas for new books - and of course to reciprocate and offer ideas - , especially books related to sff that I may enjoy. I visit bookstores several times a week at least when it's cold outside and I browse extensively thorugh new releases, but it's a one in thirty chance usually - I counted once - that I will find a book that interests me and I do not know about.

Larry said...

True, especially for the 19th century serials. Of course, I'm more inclined to read some of the more bawdy 18th century English novels, such as Tom Jones, so perhaps that might account in part for my overlooking of the serials.

My interests are in part like that which you describe, Liviu, but I'm also interested in engaging in conversations with others about the ideas behind the books, etc. Probably explains why I eventually started blogging regularly here last June.

Liviu said...

The "classical" serials died when mmpb appeared, so I guess after WW1 though occasionally people try to resurrect them. M. Chabon published Gentlemen of the Road in the NYT magazine as a serial and it is available for free since NYT opened its archive to the public.

Also if you are a lover of pre 1923 literature - pre Mickey Mouse -or pre 1950's if you are willing to go to non-US sources which are not yet corrupted by Disney's lobbying towards perpetual de facto copyright post 1923, it is amazing how much is available for free online at Gutenberg, mobileread, manybooks and assorted places.

Larry said...

I have used Project Gutenberg on occasion for some hard-to-find stories, including a minor novel by Ibañez dating from the 1920s. Too bad that one is saved on my old computer's HD, or else I would have finished it by now. Been meaning to buy some of his works for a couple of years now.

 
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